This is Saif Ali Khan's 28th year in the Hindi film industry. Like most others from his generation, he's spent more of his life on the screen than off it. Unlike the other Khans, though, Saif's has been a career that has consistently straddled the fragile bridge between actor and star. In the 1990s, it was out of limitation. Post the noughties, it's been out of choice. Indian audiences have been unfamiliar with this terrain – for the most part, it translated to "neither here nor there" and "no man's land". But over the last decade, as incoming artists have begun to straddle the two extremes, and as moviegoers have begun to look past the big screen, Khan's status has been reinterpreted as "all-rounder". The specialists are now the ones struggling. Saif meanwhile headlines a film, a web series, does cameos, morphs into a supporting actor at will, thrives as an antagonist as well as a canny producer.
While the best of today's artists are inherent actors flirting with the allowances of stardom, Khan's arc – of a star aspiring to flirt with the obsessions of performance art – is a rarity. The risks he takes are calculated, often designed to be a zero-sum game. For instance, his last three roles alone have evoked the essence of three separate schools of Indian acting: Laal Kaptaan was an 'arthouse' performance, Tanhaji a single-screen one and Jawaani Jaaneman a multiplex turn The glass-half-empty perception of him has finally dissolved into a half-full one, partly due to the new-age casting revolution and partly due to his disarming desire to improve, adapt, evolve and experiment.
Saif Ali Khan is not perfect, he never has been, and maybe his imperfection has been his most enduring strength. He's 50 now, but one might count on the fact that his skills will age with the kind of self-awareness missing from his high-profile contemporaries.
On that note, in the run-up to his second major OTT outing (the Amazon Original Tandav), here are 10 of his most remarkable performances across mediums, ranked:
The best thing about an otherwise-middling Love Aaj Kal was Saif Ali Khan in a double role. The casting felt a little gimmicky, but it wasn't random. The duality on the surface is obvious: the 'modern' Jai is a classic Imtiaz Ali hero unsure of whether he's coming or going, the old-school Veer is a romantic at odds with the existentialism of millennial feelings. But beneath it was another duality: Saif the star jostling for space with Saif the actor. On the back of a game-changing Omkara, which was still ripe in public memory, this was a reinvented Khan unveiling his new identity by juxtaposing it with an old one. The sturdy Sikh lover of post-Partition India – a flashback of none other than Rishi Kapoor's story – was a far cry from the bronze-bodied metrosexual solo hero that Khan had come to symbolize. And the confused NRI of post-liberalization India became a messy monochromatic frame in a career that was until then bursting with pastel colours.
The role of Rohit Patel was designed to be overshadowed by Shah Rukh Khan's Aman and Preity Zinta's Naina. It also came at a time Saif Ali Khan was starting to get typecast as the third-wheeling martyr of love triangles. But his Rohit – the friendzoned G-U-J-J-U bachelor living the colour-coded Manhattan life – was a breath of fresh air in a film that overdosed on terminal melodrama. His high-school-jock chemistry with SRK felt unscripted and on-the-fly, only a few seasons after he propped up the other Khan in a landscape-altering buddy flick. I remember this bromance going mainstream; I watched my first (and last) Filmfare Awards live in 2003, when the two Khans had a blast co-hosting the event in the lead-up to their Kal Ho Naa Ho renaissance. They were soon everywhere, not least because Saif had just broken through in the Hindi rom-com space – not as the boyish blue-blooded star-child with flowing locks, but as the rugged 30-something man-child finding resonance with a new multiplex generation of moviegoers.
Playing a righteous, uninteresting police officer – who is destined to be hustled by both the villain and the elaborate non-linear narrative – can be a thankless job. But with his first "long-form" turn as the now-iconic Sartaj Singh, Khan became the first mainstream Hindi star to exercise his OTT muscles, thus paving the path for his colleagues. I'm not a fan of the series – the second season was a hot mess, the first fatally incomplete – but it's hard to look past Khan's ubiquitous, noble performance. He blends into his sweaty Mumbai surroundings, grounding a complex premise that threatens to spiral out of control every other minute. Though a number of actors over the years have played Sikh characters with varying degrees of success, Khan makes up in brooding action for what he lacks in language and lived-in experience. Pensive Khan is rarely as joyous as Goofy Khan, but the integrity of this effort is interesting to watch. Singh is nothing if not a symbol of Khan's rare 'middle' privilege – the epitome of a Bollywood actor whose star is small enough to dare and fail, and big enough to dare and return. Neither a sensation, nor a cautionary tale, Khan thrives in this space of niche fame.
Everyone tries to forget this film – not least the star and the director himself – but the bloated, doomed, muddled, over-budget, globe-trotting and ambitious super-spy action thriller shone light on a single fact through its rubble: Saif Ali Khan is a terrifically understated action hero. The movie bombed big-time, as did Phantom later, but there's something compelling about Saif as the suave, self-important and mysterious double agent. Sure, he's Hollywood-ish in his appeal as compared to the desi Tiger (both movie and star) franchise. But he aces the musicality of moviemaking – from the haunting single-take blood ballad Raabta to the token publicity video Pyaar Ki Pungi – in a way that very few Indian son-of-soil heroes can. This is also a rare role where Khan, perhaps a performer who has the most fun while acting (he looks perpetually amused with his characters), is required to take himself seriously – but he manages to make serious look like fun too. I still revisit the more watchable parts of Agent Vinod for his charismatic little leaps of faith. It's the closest cinema has come to a brown Bond.
Of all the first-tier actors in the noughties, I could have never placed Saif Ali Khan as Shekhar Roy in Vidya Balan's celebrated debut film. Part Devdas and part Akshaye Khanna of Taal in Pradeep Sarkar's elegant Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay adaptation, Khan plays an unusually passionate character – a musician-cum-jealous-lover at emotional odds with the literary nature of his setting. For once, he was on the right side of a triangle, lending valuable contrast to Balan's lyrical performance and stealing the show by refusing to steal it. For a mercurial hero, his was also a surprisingly understated portrait of volatility. You believed his affection, his fondness, his love and misguided rage for Balan's Lalita. I believe it was also the first time Khan used his inherently aristocratic voice to great effect, especially in Shekhar's moments with his domineering father. His role was versatile within itself; it spoke volumes about his presence that a non-Bhansali period romance with none of the ornamental frills impressed a moviegoing culture conditioned to (the promise of) grandeur.
Akshat Verma's directorial debut and long-awaited follow-up to Delhi Belly tried too hard to be morbidly nutty. Yet Saif Ali Khan's left-of-field conviction was on full display as an existential everyman who, on being diagnosed with stomach cancer, decides to "live it up" in an absurd night of drugs, parties, chases and fleeting connections. The black comedy is technically a multi-narrative film, but Khan's oddly endearing and uninhibited performance blurs the line between middle-aged meltdown and coming-of-age flight. The terminal-hero-getting-high template is not unfamiliar. At some level, it's often up to the actor to infuse these genre explosions with their own personality: Khan does plenty of it, somehow even raising visions of his own health scare and creative renaissance that followed. Give me this colourful on-screen crisis anyday over the bronzed, unidimensional and pretty-boy rom-com lead (Hum Tum, Salaam Namaste, Cocktail etc).
In probably the funniest role by a Khan in the 1990s, a long-haired and Bambi-eyed Saif turned spoofing into an artform at least two decades before online skits became cool. In an "unofficial remake" of The Hard Way, he sent up his own always-the-bridesmaid career by playing a solo hero and iconic Bollywood heartthrob – a legacy that eluded him in real life – with impeccable self-slapping and comic timing. In the process, he not only made a memorable Michael J. Fox performance his own, he also lent priceless context to then-action-star Akshay Kumar's self-serious screen image. Their chalk-and-cheese chemistry is one for the ages, though I can't help but imagine Rangeela's Steven Kapoor directing Main Khiladi Tu Anari's 'enthu cutlet' Deepak Kumar in a macho action thriller. For more shared-universe trivia, imagine Deepak Kumar growing into Govinda's aged single-screen superstar Armaan, for whom Saif's Yudi writes for in Happy Ending.
For most artists, it's hard to distinguish that moment: the moment it all changed, the moment there was no turning back. Even if it exists, it's seldom tangible enough to witness. After almost a decade of limbo in an industry that hadn't figured out how to optimize his beta-male charm, we all felt that precise moment for Saif Ali Khan. Khan found Farhan Akhtar – and more importantly, vice versa. Dil Chahta Hai was a watershed moment for Hindi cinema, but it was a tsunami for Saif. Poetically, he was resurrected by playing the awkward middle man – the lovesick friend who nobody takes seriously, the goofball who is always the butt of all jokes, the average of two extremes, the boy between two heroes. Sameer was the balm for the wounds of Akash and Sid, but he was also a self-deprecatory symbol of the new-age urban hero: humour is a college habit rather than a character trait, comedy is an inadvertent consequence rather than a movie genre. If nothing, Woh Ladki Hai Kahan alone dignifies Khan's long-time subversion of the hero-ka-dost stereotype.
In the period between 2004 and 2006, Saif Ali Khan was by far the most improved actor in Hindi cinema. Dil Chahta Hai triggered a diverse second innings, the highlights of which were his "negative roles" in these three years. Both Sriram Raghavan's Ek Hasina Thi (2004) and Homi Adajania's Being Cyrus (2006) seem to have unfurled in the same dark, edgy space – with Khan teasing our notions of him as a newly minted romantic hero. Whether it was the manipulative lover as the perfect foil to one of Urmila Matondkar's last-remembered roles, or a homegrown The Talented Mr. Ripley avatar in an eccentric Parsi thriller, Khan swung for the fences. His distinct brand of anglo-brooding intensity also lent both movies the (then-rare) luxury of female agency and narrative twists. Karan Singh Rathod and Cyrus Mistry arrived with sinister quiet, thereby testing the waters for the more gleeful and freewheeling villainy of Omkara, Rangoon, Baazaar and Tanhaji down the line.
Everyone expected it, but nobody saw it coming. The multiplex star morphing into a sneaky hinterland snake. But Saif Ali Khan's Langda Tyagi amounted to more than just a shock to the senses; the urbane urgency got traded for an all-knowing grin, the smooth saunter made way for an ominous limp. Despite the critical successes of Ek Hasina Thi and Being Cyrus, there was something absolute and unsettling about the Vishal Bhardwaj-envisioned Shakespearean antagonist. Langda's poisonous mind can almost be touched: he finds a guinea pig in Deepak Dobriyal's melodramatic Rajju before unleashing his plans on the primary narrative. Khan's rural physicality is uncanny – the gait, twisty Meerut twang, the seasoned envy – but it's his psychological grasp of playing a shadow in broad daylight that drives the primal vacuum of Omkara. It's a performance that transcends the "negative role" and "supporting actor" labels – a definitive and singular Hindi film career peak that will long defy the tides of time.
Go Goa Gone (2013): A Delhiite pretending to be a Russian zombie slayer in Goa, what could possibly go wrong? As it turned out, everything and nothing. A performance worthy of a stoner movie.
Yeh Dillagi (1994): Ole Ole made him a fleeting heartthrob, but there was soul in the rakish body of the rich, bratty and younger son of the Saigal family. Akshay Kumar, Kajol and Reema Lagoo became second fiddle to the second fiddle.
Rangoon (2017): Saif truly enjoys eating righteous heroes for breakfast in period epics, but I prefer his pencil-moustached one-handed Rusi Billimoria to Tanhaji's murderous Rajput (but really Muslim) general Udaybhan Singh Rathore.
Laal Kaptaan (2019): The film comes a cropper, but Saif's late-career conviction in the haunted journey of a vengeful Naga Sadhu is nothing if not immersive.